“Rest on your Shoulder” is the latest outing from Hong Kong director Jacob Cheung, which sees him shifting from the character driven drama of “Cageman” and “Ticket” to something on a much bigger scale. Adapted from a popular internet novel, the film is a very different affair indeed, being a special effects heavy tale that combines a variety of genres and themes into an ambitious tale of life, love and talking insects. The film certainly has a high profile cast, headlined by Aloys Chen (“Let the Bullets Fly”), Gigi Leung (“Just Another Pandora’s Box”), Jiang Yi Yan (“City of Life and Death”) and Guey Lun Mei (“Taipei Exchanges”).
The film takes place in an unspecified near future, with the planet apparently ravaged by pollution and the population under constant threat of disease. Aloys Chen plays Yan Guo, a botanist living on the eco-paradise Moon Island, working to try and perfect a new flower which may have amazing medicinal properties. Unfortunately, while planting it under a famous tree with his girlfriend Baobao (Jiang Yi Yan), an act said to bring them everlasting love and happiness, he suffers an allergic reaction and falls into a deep coma, from which it appears he will never awake. Desperate to save him, Baobao returns to the tree and strikes a deal with a mysterious spirit called Eros, curing him in return for her being transformed into a butterfly for three years, during which she can follow him around to see if his love remains true. Thinking her dead, Guo returns to his work, helped by neighbour Bai Lan (Guey Lun Mei), a young girl with a crush on him, while Baobao flutters around in the background. Their love is put to the test when an attractive journalist called Yang Lin (Gigi Leung) visits the island to interview Guo, with matters complicated by a looming environmental crisis.
Although a film about a young woman turning into a butterfly may sound a little odd, it’s difficult to describe just how eccentric “Rest on your Shoulder” really is. The film is a cramming together of a vast number of different elements, from its vaguely science fiction setting through to its love story and threat of environmental ruin, with some bizarre comedy and talking insect sequences resembling the Disney Pixar outing “A Bug’s Life” thrown in for good measure. As a result, the tone of the film veers quite wildly, and it’s easy to get confused as to whether certain parts are supposed to be moving, funny or dramatic. This is especially true during the final third, when the film appears to be heading off into disaster movie territory, only to quite abruptly wrap up by declaring itself as some kind of romantic fable.
Thankfully, director Jacob Cheung, always known for his skill at character development and storytelling, somehow manages to combine all of this into a coherent whole, and despite, or perhaps because of its seemingly wilful weirdness, the film is entertaining and engaging throughout. It’s certainly a very imaginative affair, and one which wins several bonus points for ambition and for being a Chinese blockbuster which takes a very different route to the usual period epics. Similarly, although it’s hard to take seriously a tale of unrequited love between an oblivious man and a big-eyed butterfly, the romantic triangle which develops between Guo, Baobao and Yang Lin is an amusingly unconventional one, and the film’s heart is clearly in the right place. It also helps that the cast are all on likeable form, in particular Gigi Leung, uniformly doing their best with some of the more outlandish aspects of the material, and this does add an all important humanistic air to the proceedings.
A lot of work and thought quite obviously went into the visuals, and though at times hampered by some odd computer work, the film does generally look good, successfully bringing Moon Island to life as a colourful and magical place. The cinematography from veteran Ardy Lam (“Bullet in the Head”) is really quite gorgeous, and the film is easily one of the more handsome contemporary Chinese productions for some time. Whilst this quality doesn’t really extend to the CGI insects, with Baobao’s butterfly and her various friends being bizarrely cartoonish creations, this fits in well enough with the fact that all of the related scenes seem to be played for laughs. Whether or not this was truly the case never really matters, as the sheer strangeness and pointlessness of most of the insect content is enough to make for a welcome comic addition, preventing the film from ever wallowing too much in sentimentality.
This actually sums up “Rest on your Shoulder” quite neatly, as a film which despite being a bit of a mess is nevertheless surprisingly charming and a lot of fun. A little ambition certainly goes a long way, and the film offers a decent alternative to the usual Chinese period productions, even if a director of Jacob Cheung’s is undoubtedly capable of something far more substantial.
Chi Leung ‘Jacob’ Cheung (director) / Chi Leung ‘Jacob’ Cheung, Polly Yeung (screenplay)
CAST: Kun Chen … Guo
Yiyan Jiang … Bao
Lunmei Kwai … Lily
Gigi Leung … Yang Lin